Literally “character”, but also a nominal form of the verb wà meaning to exist/be located in time/space. One of the main goals or purposes of life from a traditional Yoruba perspective is to cultivate ìwàpẹlẹ (good/gentle character) that orders one’s life and the world around one well. The various ritual processes and dictates of ancestral, cultural, and sacred traditions (including those of orí and the òrìṣà) help to refine, shape, or cultivate this character. While a person can have bad character (ìwà búburú), this is understood as a type of deficiency or a literal tending towards nothingness as ìwà is linked to existence itself, and the substance of ìwà is assumed to be positive/good. Ìwà as moral substance or character engages in a reciprocal relationship with orí as ìwàpẹlẹ has a positive effect on one’s orí and a good orí can help in the cultivation of ìwàpẹlẹ. Alternatively, a lack of ìwà has a negative effect on one’s orí and vice versa.
The concept of ìwà is of critical importance because it demonstrates the malleability of human nature as its positive expression improves human nature, but its lack erodes that very same nature regardless of the quality of one’s orí. Thus, it adds another dynamic layer of complexity to the Yoruba notion of “destiny”. It also dictates the quality and length of one’s life as excellent character (ìwàpẹlẹ) is not only believed to result in long life but can be invoked in artistic representations of ìwà in effigies created to commemorate and immortalize the deceased of high moral substance by localizing their spirit within them. However, those of poor moral substance tend toward nothingness, tend not to be memorialized, and consequently may be unable to become reincarnated. Hence, ìwà not only points to the self’s potential and contingent continuation after earthly death, it is the very means by which each outcome is affected.
Unlike orí and ẹmí, ìwà has no mythology around it being given to or chosen in heaven. Instead, it is generally anthropomorphized as a woman with whom people may and should cultivate a relationship. In Odù Ogbé-Alárá, Ọrúnmìlà marries Ìwà—sometimes identified as the daughter of Sùúrù (Patience)—and although she is very beautiful, living in such intimacy with her is incredibly trying for him, and he either becomes critical of her or annoyed with her bad behavior. Ìwà then leaves Ọrúnmìlà, and his life becomes even harder without her presence, which prompts him to go to the ends of the earth searching for her. In one version he wins her back by singing a song about how it is impossible to acquire the good things in life without Ìwà. In another she chooses to stay with her father Sùúrù in heaven but promises to aid Ọrúnmìlà invisibly if he exhibits good character toward all people (Abimbola 1975, 395-416).
There are also several well-known proverbs (òwe) related to ìwà that demonstrate its use in Yoruba religion and philosophy. One related to the above narrative is ìwà lẹwà which literally means “(good) character is beauty”. “Beauty” does not necessarily mean something is pleasing or enjoyable, but rather it is the proper and effective expression of the invisible nature, ìwà. Both come from the same root verb “wà”, and the proverb suggests that true character is always “beautiful” or effective/beneficial even if it is not pleasing, just like Ọrúnmìlà’s mythical wife. Another proverb that alludes to the Ifá narrative is sùúrù ni bàbá ìwà (patience is the father/source of character). This proverb clearly indicates that patience is ontologically anterior to and a necessary condition for ìwà and that the presence of patience naturally gives rise to good character. Sùúrù is also mythologized as the first-born of Olódùmarè, which causes this proverb to conceptualize ìwà as a procession from God like ẹmí but less directly.
Ìwà’s close, dynamic connection with orí is demonstrated by the following proverbs:
Bí orí ba fẹ ìwà If orí marries ìwà
Bí ìwà ba fẹ orí If ìwà marries orí
Aiye a gún régé Life/the world will be well ordered/pleasant
Eni l’orí rere The owner of a good orí
Ti ò níwà Who does not have ìwà
Lo ma borí rẹ jẹ Will ruin her orí.
Together, these proverbs demonstrate that even with a good orí, one’s character (ìwà) is needed as a consort to ensure that it brings about all the potential good in one’s being or nature. Ìwà’s absence metaphysically degrades one’s destiny (orí) and lessens one’s existence. This perspective is further supported by other common sayings such as kìí ṣènìyàn (he/she/it is not a real person), ènìyàn lásán (barely a human being), or ẹranko ni (he/she/it is an animal) if a person does not exhibit sufficient ìwà to qualify as a full member of society and thus a person.
The goal of life in the traditional Yoruba world is to perfect one’s ìwà or existence and thus become as fully a person as possible, as demonstrated by the proverb Aìkú parí ìwà (immortality is perfect existence/character). The perfect expression of one’s primordial nature (ẹwà) and character (ìwà) in this world naturally shares in ìwà’s timelessness, ensuring a long existence on earth and the perpetuation of the self in the memory of those left behind as a result of the quality of one’s character and actions.
People who demonstrate excellent ìwàpẹlẹ are known as Ọmọlúwàbí, which is generally translated as ọmọ-ti-Oní-ìwà-bí (child begotten by the Lord of existence/character [Olódùmarè]). This common phrase again ontologically links the central element of ìwà to Olódùmarè and suggests that the more directly the person manifests that character, the better exemplar of existence and humanity she is.
Despite its central importance in the translation of a person’s celestial nature and orí into existence in the world, ìwà as a concept has attracted less attention in academic literature than it does in Yoruba tradition. However, Abimbola (1975) analyzes the place of ìwà in Ifá narratives to stress the high moral standards of traditional Yoruba life and religion, and Abiodun (1983 & 2014) analyzes how Yoruba aesthetics convey and materialize a person’s ìwà. O. Ogunnaike (2020) goes the farthest in theorizing the complex reciprocal relationship between orí and ìwà, harmonizing apparently contradicting articulations.
- Àṣẹ– Effective existential power or authority. Àṣẹ is the ability to bring and keep anything into existence and is rooted in/given by Olódùmarè and mediated by the òrìṣà Èṣù. Everything that exists has its own particular àṣẹ according to its nature, and those with the knowledge of how to work with àṣẹ in its many forms are able to produce effective change on various levels of existence through speech, art, ritual, medicine, etc.
- Ara-human body, primarily, but not exclusively, the physical body. It houses and allows the other elements of a person to become manifest and operate dynamically in the world. The term—like ènìyàn—can also be used to stand in for “person”, and much like its constituent parts have metaphysical natures as well, it resists strict body/spirit dualism despite being more rooted in the physical than most other terms.
- Ẹnìkejì-A person’s heavenly double akin to a guardian angel or spirit. Some differentiate it from the orí while others treat it as a merely another name for the same entity.
- Ẹs`ẹ-“Foot/leg” in physical terms but also the effort/work done to make one’s orí/destiny realized on earth. Even the best orí will never be expressed without proper effort to carry it out well, making ẹsẹ an essential companion to orí.
- Òrìṣà-Deity/intermediary between people and Olódùmarè, there is usually one who “owns a person’s head” and functions much like a patron saint. There is usually a strong resemblance between the devotees ideal or celestial character (ìwà) and that of the tutelary òrìṣà, and those who have refined their ìwà along these lines to the highest degree are often identified directly with the òrìṣà or called by the òrìṣà’s name.
- Òjìjì-“Shadow.” Although conceptions vary depending on region and tradition, it is commonly understood as a type of “soul”, but one with an essential although far less active role in the sustenance of the self. Rituals are generally not performed for it, but some believe it travels through dreams while people are asleep. It can remain on earth and possibly even take material form after the death of the body (ara) but requires the continued presence of ẹmí in order to talk. Some say it merely marks the presence of ẹmí in ara.
- Ọkàn-“Heart” or organ primarily responsible for a type of intuitive cogitation very similar to the English term “will”. Much like the physical function of pumping blood, it coordinates and motivates the various parts of the body, directing them towards a purpose and enduring in the face of resistance. Given this function it is closely associated with ẹmí and similar to ọpọlọ (literally “brain”) which is linked more closely with intelligence, the application of wisdom, or creativity.
- Ènìyàn-“Person” refers to the totality of a human being, but in a moralistic and normative sense. A person of highly refined character may be called ènìyàn gidi (intensely/very much a person). As soon as any of the constituent parts of the person is absent or degraded to a great extent (such as ìwà or orí), one ceases to be alive in the physical but also moral sense as demonstrated by the phrase kìí ṣenìyàn (she/he/it is not a “person”) which is applied to anyone who does not meet the ethical/existential standards required to be a member of Yoruba society.